Portugal Fashion: Behind the Scenes

Words: Margarida Brito Paes
Photography: Tomás Monteiro

The lights go down, the room is quiet, the spotlights come on one by one in time with the first model’s steps, with the others walking behind in time. At the end, when the models form a line, the signal is given for the public to start applauding the designer. This is the dance of the fashion show, choreographed to the smallest detail. A waltz that is only serene when viewed from beyond the curtain; however, when we peek behind, we find a mechanically coordinated frenzy.

We are at Portugal Fashion, at the start of a show, as the first model steps out onto the catwalk. But now, let’s go back four hours and see just how we got here. The designers arrive backstage four hours before the show begins. The first job is to hang the collections on the rails; each coordinator is already organised and assigned to a model, a photograph of whom is hanging alongside the clothes. Then it is time for the fittings, when the models put on the clothes chosen for them and when any last-minute changes are made to the outfits or the line-up.

Remember the phrase “line-up”, because it is probably the most important word behind the scenes. The line-up is the order in which the models enter the catwalk, which would be easy to manage were the models only to wear one outfit per show, which rarely happens. In other words, the line-up must take into account the time the models need to change their outfits before returning to the catwalk. “Ideally, if the show has 16 models, then the 17th outfit should be worn by the first model. There may need to be changes to take the size of the catwalk and how many models we can have into account, but the minimum interval between changes is ten outfits, fewer than ten is not enough,” explains Luís Pereira, backstage director of Portugal Fashion. A poorly prepared line-up is one of the worst nightmares for the show’s production team. “An empty catwalk is the worst thing that can happen. Sometimes we have the line-up and we don’t have anyone to come on,” he continues. What do you do then? We send out whoever is ready; if possible, someone who will not compromise the show’s harmony too much.

Returning to the designers’ hustle and bustle, in addition to the fittings they have to approve the make-up and hair and define the show’s choreography with Isabel Branco, Portugal Fashion’s casting director, who says “I have to have the choreography done in ten minutes. Sometimes five. There’s no time. The shows are every hour, so they have to be done the way the designers want them, with what they like and what they want, five minutes in advance.”

Once the choreography is set and the hair and make-up are done, then it is time to get dressed. Backstage at every show, the model dressers are waiting and know exactly who they have to dress. “A model dresser dresses two models, but never two who go on one after the other. By having each model wear only one, outfit we can have fewer model dressers. However, when a model has to change outfits three or four times, it is useful to have a model dresser just for her. You can see this on the line-up,” says Luís Pereira.

Doing this sequentially would be a huge challenge: now imagine doing it staggered. This is what goes on behind the scenes at Portugal Fashion. All the teams work in a staggered manner, so there is no downtime. The hair and make-up teams are split into two: one show on, one show off. This means each team can work one show in advance, so they have two hours to prepare each one. This division also exists within the same show. To make the best use of time, while one group of models is being fitted, the other group is being made up and styled, and then they switch.

This level of coordination needs to work like the movement of a finely-crafted Swiss watch. That’s why behind the scenes there are always people with lists of names in their hands who are always looking for someone. These people are the section heads, and it is their job to know where each model is and where they have to be next. The section heads are the people who do the heavy lifting and keep the complex mechanism moving. Backstage at fashion weeks works like a well-oiled machine, with carefully-calibrated processes. This means that whenever there are changes, no matter how small, everyone needs to be advised. “The most difficult thing is that when there are delays it is impossible to recover,” says Isabel Branco, emphasizing the domino effect, any small and unforeseen events can have on a project of this scale.

It takes many pairs of hands to prevent delays and ensure everything goes smoothly. At the last edition of Portugal Fashion, a total of 575 backstage passes were issued: 90 for models, 30 for hair stylists, 17 for make-up artists, 64 for designers and 40 for model dressers. Backstage access is not just for the technical teams, however: the press, organisers and production teams also have access to this space. According to Portugal Fashion organizers, about 1,000 people are thought to have passed through the backstage area, “but not all at the same time.”

This coming and going of people is only possible because the Alfândega do Porto is 900 m2, split into a number of large rooms. The room that is home to most of the frenzy is the one for hair and make-up. Both sections are arranged side-by-side with large windows in front. While on one side we have the mirrors and the noise of hairdryers filling the air, on the make-up side it is difficult to stay objective, with one thousand and one products and colours spread out on the tables.

“I take my two basic make-up cases to work at Portugal Fashion: one weighs 17 kg, the other 18 kg. Then I have another huge bag, which must weigh about 12 kg, with all the extras. Once I know the looks needed by the designers, I take specific items for each show, and they all go in that bag. I also take extra products for my team, specific products — such as colours — that are then shared with the entire team,” says Paulo Almeida, Portugal Fashion’s director of make-up.

This prior selection of products is only possible because Paulo Almeida meets with the designers a week in advance to define the looks they will use at the show. “If I can’t meet the designer beforehand, I do the first make-up and then see if the designer approves it. It is almost always approved. The first make-up is normally done one show in advance, so we have two hours’ leeway,” he explains. First make-up is done by the entire team as a demonstration of how they will apply it to the catwalk models. There is always someone from make-up and hair in the wings ready to put the finishing touches to the models before they step out onto the catwalk.

If we were able to see through the curtains to the backstage area, this is what we would find. Organized chaos that is emulated the world over, but which is different in Portugal because here there is no separate backstage team for each show: it’s the same backstage team for the whole week. “We have this way of doing everything hour by hour and being very quick. If we were to go out there, we would be fantastic. People I meet at international fashion weeks are astonished when I tell them how we operate,” says Isabel Branco.

Their astonishment is understandable when we consider the size of this machine, made up of many plates that need to be kept spinning.

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